BEIJING (Reuters) - China has released from jail one of its longest-serving dissidents, the ethnic Mongolian rights activist Hada, but his whereabouts are not known and he is likely still being detained, an exiled group said Monday.
Hada was tried in China's northern Inner Mongolia region in 1996 and sentenced to 15 years in jail for separatism and spying and for his support for the Southern Mongolian Democratic Alliance, which sought greater rights for ethnic Mongolians.
He was scheduled for release from jail in Chifeng, a city in Inner Mongolia northeast of Beijing, last Friday, the same day that another Chinese dissident, Liu Xiaobo, was awarded this year's Nobel Peace Prize.
Police detained Hada's wife and son in the run-up to the release, though they have now apparently all been reunited, the New York-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center said in a statement, showing pictures of the reunion on its website, www.smhric.org.
"Judging from the clothes Xinna and Uiles are wearing, these pictures seem to be pretty recent and authentic," Naraa, the sister of Hada's wife, Xinna, told the group, adding she did not know where they were.
"But the three are still not set free," she said.
Uiles is Hada's son. Many ethnic Mongolians in China use only one name.
Chinese authorities often place released political prisoners under house arrest or otherwise restrict their movements and contact with the outside world. The rights group said the picture appeared to have been taken in a hotel room.
"The scene suggests that the family reunion was probably arranged by the authorities in a place obviously not their own home," it said.
Xinna has previously told Reuters that she and her husband were merely trying to protect the cultural rights of ethnic Mongolians in China, denying the government's charges.
Telephone calls to Xinna and several other activists in Inner Mongolia were not answered or met with a message saying the telephone line had been disconnected.
Police in Chifeng declined to comment. Inner Mongolia government spokesman Wen Fei said he had never heard of Hada.
"If he's out of jail how should I know where he is, and if he's in jail then I also don't know where he is," Wen said.
Decades of migration by members of China's main Han ethnic group have made Chinese Mongolians a minority in their own land, officially comprising less than 20 percent of the almost 24 million population of Inner Mongolia.
Little is known about human rights issues in Inner Mongolia, as the Mongolians lack a well-known overseas advocate like Tibet's Dalai Lama or Xinjiang's Rebiya Kadeer, the Nobel Peace Prize nominee called the "mother of the Uighur people."
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Lucy Hornby; Editing by Ken Wills)